ISLAMABAD (AFP) – A suicide bomber blew himself up among a group of policemen during clashes at the Red Mosque in Pakistan’s capital, killing at least 12 people, most of them police, officials said.
The blast came after hundreds of radical students occupied the mosque in the heart of Islamabad after its official government reopening, which followed an army operation earlier this month in which more than 100 people died.
Policemen’s caps and shoes lay alongside body parts at the scene of the blast in one of the leafy city’s busiest bazaars, where police were resting after firing tear gas at stone-throwing protesters, an AFP correspondent said.
“A man detonated explosives strapped to his body among two rows of Punjab police constabulary members who were there on duty because of the unrest at the Red Mosque,” the security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“At least 12 people have been killed and many wounded. Most of the dead were policemen,” he added.
Interior Secretary Kamal Shah, who gave a provisional death toll of 11, seven of whom he said were police, said: “The incident was linked to the Red Mosque situation.”
“I saw bodies flying through the air, some were without legs and some were without arms. I put as many as i could into ambulances,” policeman Mukhtar Ahmad told AFP.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack but it comes amid a wave of violence following the the week-long siege and subsequent storming of the mosque between July 3 and 11.
Unrest erupted at the mosque when radical students chased out a government-picked Islamic elder who was meant to lead the first Friday prayers there since the military operation two weeks ago.
Around a dozen people using rollers daubed red paint over the walls, which had been changed to a peach colour during government renovations. The unarmed demonstrators flew black jihadi flags with crossed swords from the minarets.
Hardliners at the mosque hurled rocks at armoured police vehicles and officers in riot gear, injuring two policemen, officials said. Police fired tear gas at the demonstrators and arrested six people.
The students demanded the return of the mosque’s chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, who was caught trying to flee the compound in a woman’s burqa during the siege and is now in jail awaiting trial on terror charges.
They chanted “Musharraf is a dog, death to the Musharraf government,” adding that the blood of the mosque’s rebel leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who died in the assault, would “bring an Islamic revolution.”
Friday’s violence comes despite pledges from President Pervez Musharraf to crush extremism in Pakistan.
The government cracked down on the mosque after it led a Taliban-style vigilante campaign, with the goal of imposing Sharia law, which climaxed with the abduction of seven citizens from China, Pakistan’s closest ally.
Religious Affairs Minister Ijaz-ul Haq reopened the complex — renamed the Central Mosque — on Thursday, with bullet holes from the bitter fighting plastered over by workmen and damaged fans and lighting all repaired.
But despite tight security, the students on Friday stopped prayer leader Imam Mohammad Ashfaq taking up his position at the mosque’s pulpit and used the microphone to deliver their own furious speeches against the government raid.
“I was told everything would be peaceful. I was never interested in taking up this job and after today I will never do it,” Ashfaq told AFP as he left with a police escort.
The protesters also threw shoes at cameramen and reporters covering the event.
“We worked day and night to open the mosque for people to offer prayers but some people, mainly former students, are trying to create mischief,” interior ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema told AFP.
Authorities earlier this week razed an Islamic girls’ school and some staff quarters within the mosque compound that had been declared dangerous after the clashes.
The madrassa was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting and was where Ghazi was shot dead by government commandos on July 10. He had expressed hopes that his death would spark an Islamic revolution.
Around 10 burqa-clad girl students from the madrassa turned up at the mosque on Friday, saying that the government had lied about the official death toll from the military operation.
The Red Mosque raid set off a wave of revenge suicide attacks and other militant strikes that have killed more than 200 people and piled pressure on military leader Musharraf.